04 March 2011

...designer labels

Behind the scenes at the The Art Café, local establishment of the The Artist and the Tartist,  I stumbled upon a nice little bit of human interface design which, out of function and familiarity, is just another piece of the furniture, but deserves some recognition. It's a bank of switches which control the whole shop's lighting. The location of the switches means the person operating them is unable to see every light turning on in the shop, so without the obvious visual feedback, you wouldn't know which switch operates which light. With 18 buttons all told, it's quite a few to navigate in the dark. However, somebody has already sorted this out, and the switches are helpfully labelled, so anyone can grasp the controls - from a first day starter to a seasoned five-years-in-service employee.

Whether the person labelling the switches was conscious of it or not, they created the labels with information architecture as a guiding principal, using two different mediums to assist clarity of hierarchy; pen-on-paper stickers and Dymo tape.

The label created with the Dymo (nowadays called a Dymo Omega, but for the sake of this piece, I'll use the colloquial 'Dymo') acts as the category marker. Any light that lives either as an Inside Shop Light or as a Main Window Light is marked as such by living beneath the label. The pen-on-paper sticker labels the subcategory, pinpointing individual lights and also handles some instruction - there's three lights to be left on front of shop, and the user is aware.

I could see that these labels had been there a while, and personally knowing some of the premises history (from clothes shop, to book shop, to present day Art Cafe) my educated guess puts the labelling at one or two decades old, or quite possibly more. So the system - time proves - works, and Design is the catalyst. I propose this is in large part down to the Dymo.

There's something special about this traditional label maker, the way it permanently embosses information onto the self adhesive plastic. It empowers the user to create whatever naming label, cataloguing tag or pithy message they desire. But maybe more interestingly, it's a device which asks the user to think in order to operate it. You think about using the intuitive controls. You think about what words to create. But the crux of the process is you think about getting it right. There's no backspace or correction fluid to amend a mistake. You could use scissors to cut and paste erroneous letters, but that defeats the object of its purpose - to make labelling a breeze. Instead, you have to sit there and consider the purpose of the label you're about to create. Let's head to a domestic setting.

Christopher Walken is at his kitchen table, in his shorts, with a glass of lemonade and a Dymo:

"Okay, I need to label this Jar of flower - NO, i mean Flour. Must get that right. Let's see, what flour is it ... It's white flour, not wholemeal. But I NEVER use wholemeal and I'm the only person who bakes in this goddamn house. But I do often use Self-raising Flour. You know what, I'll be helping myself out if this jar's labelled Plain Flower - no wait - Flour ... Gosh! Must get that right. One shot, Christopher. ONE shot".

Christopher Walken is presented a task to perform with the very real possibility of making a mistake. If it's within his control and in his own interest to not make that mistake, he will take caution in his actions. He will work out the most appropriate solution to the task at hand. In this case, by knowing the advantages and pitfalls of using a Dymo and by figuring out the best semantics for his label, he'll create a useful item which will improve his environment. In short, Christopher Walken will design.

Whether used by a kid to name their text books, a DIY enthusiast to label her tins, a dad marking his flask (people STILL do this), or even the world's third favourite character actor making baking easier, the Dymo is a tool of design for everybody. An advocate of clarity and a positive, problem solving machine which makes people engage in creative thought. And for that, I salute it. And so does Chris (I get to call him that).